After cricket, Australian football can build bridges with India

December 18 2017

With Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Malcolm Turnbull approving a Memorandum of Understanding on sports between the two governments, it is time to explore the potential of sports diplomacy between Australia and India.

Sport is an avenue through which Australians and Indians can achieve greater inter-cultural understanding and emotional attachment. The common passion of Australians and Indians is cricket. Greater imagination will help develop a policy by which sports diplomacy can significantly contribute to the bilateral relationship.

Sports diplomacy is generally considered an aspect of public diplomacy, which aims to communicate and promote a positive impression of a country to the people of other countries.

In the past, sports diplomacy has been most famous for its contribution to diplomatic breakthroughs between estranged countries. Sport has contributed to political rapprochement between the United States and China (ping-pong diplomacy in 1971), Canada and USSR (ice hockey diplomacy in 1972), and between Cuba and the United States (baseball diplomacy was used by both the Clinton and Obama administrations).

But sport can be used as a diplomatic tool on a more regular basis. Greater inter-cultural understanding in domestic audiences makes for a more enabling environment for effective diplomacy. It also assists business leaders to develop trade and investment strategies that reflect the local conditions and cultural context.

There is merit in grassroots exchanges encouraged by both governments. In 2012, I organised a tour of India of the Norwood Volleyball Club. The project received generous funding from the Australia-India Council, an arm of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Over the 10-day tour, players competed in five matches, visited orphanages, were hosted by the Hindustan University, and interacted with local government officials, business leaders and students. These young leaders returned to Australia with a very different idea of India.

Those who will participate in the bilateral sports partnership signed in April will also develop greater understanding through mutually beneficial exchange. Australia will help India develop its sporting capacity, and Indian students will learn in Australian universities. There is an emphasis on technology, and engages universities such as Victoria University and the University of Canberra.

To capture the popular imagination, however, meaningful educational or grassroots exchanges need to be complemented by sport that captures the popular imagination. Cricket is an obvious candidate, but the very nature of cricket is such that it could do more harm than good.

There are more subtle opportunities to use cricket without involving our two national teams, such as cricket schools and youth exchanges.

Dennis Lillee developed the MRF pace foundation in 1987 and Stephen Waugh's philanthropic work in India is well known. With imagination, other possibilities could become apparent. Would a match between India and Pakistan played at Adelaide Oval as a neutral venue help facilitate friendship and goodwill through cricket? Such an initiative would certainly be supported by the South Australian provincial government.

The idea of using cricket, a passion shared by Australians and Indians, is consistent with the use of baseball between the US and Cuba, and ice hockey between Canada and USSR. There are other examples where the chosen sport was not a shared passion -- notably in the use of ping-pong, which had no resonance in the United States, in 1971. More recently, a match of Australian football has been heralded as an example of sports diplomacy between Australia and China. Australian football is a carrier of cultural values, to be shared with our Chinese friends, but was unthreatening as it had no impact whatsoever on national prestige.

The Australian Football League would consider a similar venture in India, which would also be of interest to local tourism authorities. Other than a considerable number of fans, Australian business leaders would attend the event and invite their local counterparts. Most importantly, it would enhance friendship and understanding between Australians and Indians.

It is an idea that merits serious consideration on both sides.

(The author is a former journalist and a sports entrepreneur. He can be contacted at ahunter@pafc.com.au. The article is in a special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)

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